The “intervention” into indigenous people’s lives in the Northern Territory, Australia, deserves more international attention than it is receiving; and given its continuation of a way of ‘managing’ aboriginal populations that has dark eugenic resonances, is also relevant to the ‘what sorts of people should there be?’ project.
The intervention was introduced by the previous Howard government when its approval ratings were flailing prior to last year’s election, in what can be seen as a last ditch effort to raise the prejudice, fear and hatred that won him the election in 2001 (just on the heals of September 11). The action involved creating a state of emergency in remote aboriginal communities, and then deploying the army and ad hoc teams of social workers, doctors, and bureaucrats into the area to examine children for signs of sexual abuse. It also has led to the quarantining of welfare payments, bans on liquor and pornography, and (perhaps more controversially) the suspension of what little self-determination indigenous people had in this area, such as the permit system (more about this below).
Apparently in response to a report commissioned by the Northern Territory government, “Little Children Are Sacred“—a report which detailed and proposed solutions to endemic hardship suffered, especially by children, in remote communities of the Northern Territory (sexual abuse being just one of these hardships)—the government called a state of emergency in these communities. Focusing only on sexual abuse and ignoring poverty, the Prime Minister said to Australia that this situation was “our Katrina“.
(Perhaps this rather bad-taste comparison was an attempt to indicate the critical nature of the situation, and that, like a natural disaster, it was “no one’s fault”—certainly not the government’s. In actual fact, the simile indicates that, as with the New Orleans delta, the situation of remote aboriginal communities was a disaster waiting to happen, and largely the result of governmental neglect and class/racial discrimination)
The intervention, as it turned out, was not a rapid response to the “Little Children” report, and ignored most of its recommendations (which addressed poverty and disadvantage)—in many instances going directly against them. And as Rebecca Stringer’s article on the intervention suggests, the government’s actions conduce more to a devolution of land rights and racial discrimination laws than a genuine attempt to address the problems of these communities.
Indeed, the ‘permit system’—which enables aboriginal communities to decide who comes onto their land; and who has contact with their children—was the first thing to go, and as events transpire it is fairly certain that this only benefits mining companies, not the children it is said to protect.
What’s more, however, the approach taken by the government appears to be continuous with the colonial paternalism that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, saw governments systematically remove aboriginal children from their parents in the attempt to “assimilate” them into the community, both culturally and racially. And here comes the eugenics angle: this assimilation was connected to a program of breeding out of aboriginality, whereby indigenous people needed permission to marry, and marriage was decided with a view to watering down black blood. It is hardly surprising that in the present context—and with the stolen generations still in living memory—many aboriginal mothers, upon hearing about the intervention, took to the hills to hide their children, just as their mothers and grandmothers had done before them.
Along with these measures, a system operated such that aboriginal wages were kept in trust accounts largely inaccessible to their rightful beneficiary (except in the form of ‘pocket money’ doled out—and often rorted—by authorities at their own discretion). So the quarantining of welfare benefits can also be seen in this light.
Although the present government apologised to the stolen generations on its first day of business, there has been no attempt to dismantle the NT intervention measures. Indeed, a committee reviewing the situation has been stacked with pro-intervention stakeholders. It would seem that the intervention is too convenient for governments (and the business interests they wish to appease) to want to reverse.
After the apology, there is a unique opportunity to address systemic injustices suffered by aboriginal people in the NT and elsewhere. The present policies, however, are only deepening the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. It is therefore critical that people remain interested and vocal about what is happening in the NT, both within Australia and internationally.